Mirrorless vs DSLR: introduction
So you want to get into photography and are looking for a decent camera that you can build a system around?
A few years ago that was easy question to answer – you had to buy a DSLR if you wanted to get creative with your photography. But then in 2008 Panasonic launched the world's first mirrorless camera, the Lumix G1, and everything changed.
Like DSLRs, mirrorless cameras (also known as CSCs or compact system cameras) allow you to change lenses, but as the name might suggest, they don't feature a complex internal mirror system like DSLRs do.
This means that they can in principle be smaller, lighter and mechanically simpler than an equivalent DSLR. It also means that they can also be just like super-sized compact cameras to use, whereas most DSLRs are a bit of a jump from a regular compact camera.
Enthusiasts and pros, however, have taken a bit of convincing on the merits of mirrorless cameras. The absence of an optical viewfinder, streamlined controls and limited lens range for most systems was a turn-off for a lot of experienced photographers.
That's all changing though. As manufacturers widen the lens range and options available, lens choice is becoming less of an issue, while a raft of new mirrorless cameras have arrived to tempt photographers away from the more traditional DSLR, with performance and image quality in some instances bettering DSLR rivals for a similar price.
The question is then, have mirrorless cameras done enough to be genuine DSLR rivals or, more to the point, are they already better? To help you decide, here are the key differences and what they mean for everyday photography.
1. Size and weight
- DSLR: Can be big and bulky, though this can be a help when shooting with big telephoto lenses (and big hands)
- CSC: Yes, they are generally smaller and lighter, but the lenses in some cases can be just as big as a DSLR's
Compact proportions is one of the big selling points for mirrorless cameras, but it doesn't always work out that way because what you actually have to take into account is the size of the camera body and lens combination.
This is a problem for mirrorless cameras with either full-frame or APS-C sized sensors because you can get a nice slim body but a fat, heavy lens on the front. Some models now come with retractable or power-zoom 'kit' lenses, but that doesn't help when you have to swap to a different type of lens.
Panasonic and Olympus cameras have an advantage here. The Micro Four Thirds sensor format is smaller (which many photographers don't like) but this means the lenses are smaller and lighter too (which many do), delivering a much more compact system all round.
Interestingly, some higher-end mirrorless cameras like the Sony Alpha A9, Panasonic Lumix G9 and Canon EOS R, are now growing in size as they take on more features and manufacturers respond to feedback from photographers who want larger grips.
At the end of the scale, entry-level DSLRs are shrinking to compete with the smaller footprint of similarly priced mirrorless cameras.
- DSLR: Both Canon and Nikon have a massive lens range for every job
- CSC: Olympus, Panasonic, Fujifilm and Sony all have a solid, but not quite as comprehensive lens ranges
If you want the widest possible choice of lenses, then a Canon or Nikon DSLR is possibly the best bet thanks to their huge range of optics - they both have an extensive range of lenses to suit a range of price points, as well as excellent third party support from the likes of Sigma and Tamron.
While Canon and Nikon have both had decades to build-up and refine their lens line-up (Nikon's lens mount is unchanged from 1959), the first mirrorless camera only appeared 10 years ago. However, mirrorless cameras are certainly gaining ground. Because Olympus and Panasonic use the same Micro Four Thirds lens mount and have been established the longest, the range of Micro Four Third lenses is the most comprehensive, offering a broad range of optics, from ultra wide-angle zooms to fast prime telephoto lenses.
Fujifilm's lens system is growing all the time, with some lovely prime lenses and excellent fast zoom lenses. Even the 18-55mm 'kit' lens is very good. There's still a few gaps in the range, but Fujifilm's definitely working hard to deliver a comprehensive and high-quality range of lenses.
Both Canon and Nikon have recently launched full-frame mirrorless cameras to run alongside each company's DSLR range. At the moment, the dedicated optics for each are limited to around three lenses, but both Canon and Nikon offers affordable adapters that will allow you to use lenses designed for DSLRs (though only the newer lenses offer full compatibility).
- DSLR: Many photographers still prefer an 'optical' view for its clarity, natural look and lag-free viewing
- CSC: Others though prefer to see a digital rendition of the scene as the camera will capture it
All DSLRs, even the cheapest, come with an optical viewfinder because it's an integral part of the DSLR design. However, quite a few entry-level mirrorless cameras don't have viewfinders at all, so you have to use the rear LCD to compose photos, which doesn't always work so well in bright light.
Mirrorless cameras with viewfinders cost more, and these are electronic rather than optical viewfinders – they display the image direct from the sensor readout and not via an optical mirror/pentaprism system.
Electronic viewfinders are advancing in leaps and bounds, so the latest rarely show any pixelation or 'granularity' that was an issue in earlier generations, though there can often be a slight but visible 'lag' if you move the camera really quickly.
The advantage of electronic viewfinders is that they can display a lot more information than an optical viewfinder can, including live image histograms, for example. They can also simulate the digital image the camera will capture, so you don't get any horrible surprises when you review your image as it's exactly what you're seeing.
This simulation is not always perfect, however, and many photographers prefer to see the world with their own eyes as they compose the image and check the digital version on the LCD straight after it's been captured. They're also easier to use in low-light.
This will come down to personal preference - get one of the latest high-end mirrorless cameras with a large magnification, large resolution electronic viewfinder, and you'll be hard pressed to find fault with it.
- DSLR: Used to have a clear advantage, but not quite as clear-cut now. On the whole they're better for tracking fast subjects, but can be weak in Live View
- CSC: Live View AF performance is generally very good when using the LCD screen, while latest models can have excellent overall AF performance when using the EVF
DSLRs use fast and efficient 'phase detection' autofocus modules mounted below the mirror in the body. This system can be incredibly fast at focusing and tracking subjects, with camera's like the Nikon D850 featuring incredibly sophisticated system.
The trouble is that these systems only work while the mirror is down. If you're using a DSLR in live view mode, composing a picture or video on the LCD display, the mirror has to be flipped up and the regular AF module is no longer in the light path. Instead, DSLRs have to switch to a slower contrast AF system using the image being captured by the sensor.
The latest Canon DSLRs (such as the EOS Rebel T7i / EOS 800D, EOS 80D and EOS 5D Mark IV) though include the company's brilliant Dual Pixel CMOS AF that uses phase-detection pixels built into the sensor. This is designed to give faster autofocus in live view mode to close the gap on mirrorless cameras and it works very well indeed.
Mirrorless cameras have to use sensor-based autofocus all the time. Most are contrast AF based, but these tend to be much faster than equivalent contrast AF modes on DSLRs, partly due to the fact the lenses have been designed around this system.
More advanced mirrorless cameras have advanced 'hybrid' AF systems combining contrast autofocus with phase-detection pixels on the sensor, with the likes of the Fujifilm X-T3, Panasonic Lumix G9 and Sony Alpha A9 really impressing with not only their speed, but with the accuracy at which they can lock on and follow a moving subject – the one area where DSLRs have, until now, had a clear advantage.
5. Continuous shooting
- DSLR: The best DSLRs can no longer match the speeds of the best CSCs
- CSC: The mirrorless design makes it easier to add high-speed shooting
You need a fast continuous shooting mode to capture action shots, and mirrorless cameras are streaking ahead here, partly because the mirrorless system means there are fewer moving parts and partly because many models are now pushing ahead into 4K video – this demands serious processing power, which helps with continuous shooting too.
To put this in perspective, Canon's top professional DSLR, the EOS-1D X Mark II, can shoot at 14 frames per second, but the mirrorless Panasonic Lumix G9 and Sony Alpha A9 can both shoot at a staggering 20fps.
You have to be a little careful though when looking at the spec. Some mirrorless cameras will boast even higher frame rates than this (in some cases, up to 60fps), but will have to use an electronic shutter to achieve this and focus will be fixed from the first shot. Not great if you're planning on tracking a moving subject.
You've also got to be realistic about what kind of burst shooting speeds you are going to need - shooting at 60fps means you'll fill up a card pretty quickly, while you'll have to spend a lot of time trudging through a multitude of images to find that 'one' shot. That said, with even entry-level mirrorless cameras offering faster burst shooting speeds than most DSLRs, mirrorless cameras certainly have the edge if this is your main concern.
- DSLR: Once massively popular with pros but getting overtaken by mirrorless rivals
- CSC: 4K video is becoming more common, better live view AF – this looks like the future
DSLRs were the first to offer professional HD and Full HD video capture, which together with a vast range of lenses and other accessories, was instantly a hit with pros and video makers.
But the shift has certainly been in mirrorless cameras favor in recent years, offering a wealth of video features that most DSLRs can't match.
4K capture is a more common feature for starters on mirrorless cameras, while DSLRs have been slow to offer this functionality - 4K video capture is unheard in entry-level DSLRs, with only an handful of Nikon higher-end Nikon DSLRs offering 4K capture. Canon, for all its initial strength in video, only offers 4K capture on the full-frame EOS 5D Mark IV. There's also the efficient live view autofocus and processing power offered by mirrorless cameras, while there's a growing range of adapters and accessories out there to offer users a complete system.
Panasonic has carved out a niche for itself with the Lumix GH5 and Lumix GH5S, offering a hybrid stills/video camera that's loved by enthusiast photographers and professional cinematographers, while Sony has opted for a similar approach with the Alpha A7S II.
- DSLR: Even entry-level models have full manual controls, and DSLRs are powerful cameras
- CSC: They match DSLRs feature for feature, often going a step or two further
In terms of photographic features and controls, DSLRs and mirrorless cameras are hard to split here.
They all offer full manual control over exposure and focusing and can shoot raw files as well as JPEGs, allowing you to get the best image quality possible. In any one sector, such as entry-level cameras, enthusiast or pro models, the control layouts and capabilities are pretty similar. Entry-level DSLRs tend to hide away the manual controls under a layer of automation, but it's the same for mirrorless cameras.
Keep in mind the point about viewfinders, though – all DSLRs have viewfinders, but often cheaper compact system cameras don't.
8. Image quality
- DSLR: DSLRs use the latest and best state of the art APS-C or full-frame sensors
- CSC: They use the same sensors, but there are also smaller formats for even smaller cameras
It's not just about megapixels, though, because the main factor in image quality is sensor size. Full-frame sensors are the biggest and offer the best quality, while cameras with APS-C sensors are almost just as good and much cheaper – and you can get either of these size sensors in both DSLRs and mirrorless cameras.
But the compact system camera market offers smaller formats too. The Micro Four Thirds format used by Panasonic and Olympus is smaller than APS-C, but so are the cameras and lenses, so you need to weigh up what's most important to you - size or ultimate image quality.
Overall, then, there's no intrinsic image quality advantage in a DSLR, given that the same sensor sizes are available in mirrorless cameras too.
9. Battery life
- DSLR: 600-800 shots is average, better models can shoot over 1,000 shots on a charge
- CSC: Much weaker, and typically around 300-400 shots. You'll need spare batteries
Battery life comparisons might not be exciting, but they are important when the differences are as great as this. The Nikon D7500 DSLR, for example, can take 950 shots on a single charge, while the Fujifilm X-T2 mirrorless camera, a close match on paper, can only shoot 340 photos before the battery expires. This pattern is repeated across the range of DSLRs and mirrorless cameras.
It's not clear why. DSLR batteries are sometimes larger, though not always, and you might have thought that driving the mirror up and down for each shot would consume more power, and that that LCD display would be used just as much. However, mirrorless cameras will have to power an EVF in most cases as well.
So, this is one area where DSLRs do often have a substantial practical advantage. You'll certainly need an extra battery or two with most mirrorless cameras.
- DSLR: You get more for your money with a cheap DSLR than a cheap CSC
- CSC: Cheap CSCs don't have viewfinders; those that do cost a more
You might hope that the simpler design of a compact system camera would make them cheaper to buy, but that's not necessarily the case.
If you want a fully-featured, 'proper' camera for the least money, then a DSLR is still the cheapest option...but it's getting a lot closer between the two.
For example, the 24MP Nikon D3500 DSLR has just about the best APS-C sensor currently on the market, an optical viewfinder (of course), decent manual controls and a staggering 1,550-shot battery life.
Its nearest rivals on price in the mirrorless camera market can't match its resolution or its battery life and they don't have viewfinders, but for only a little more the Sony Alpha A6000 packs in an almost identical 24MP APS-C sensor and features a built-in electronic viewfinder. You'll still need to get a second battery though. That said, it's only that cheap because it's been superseded.
Once you get into enthusiast and pro market, however, the differences largely disappear – for any given amount of money you get broadly the same features, performance and power.
Mirrorless vs DSLR: the verdict
- DSLR: Sturdy, good value cameras offering old-school handling and top image quality
- CSC: Smaller, technically more advanced and arguably the way forward
The technical differences between DSLRs and mirrorless camera aren't the only things you need to consider, and may not even be the most important to you.
The only way to decide once and for all is to pick them up and try them out to see which you prefer. You might prefer the fat, chunky feel and optical viewfinder of a DSLR, or you might prefer the smaller bodies and more precise feel of a mirrorless camera. It'll really come down to what you like to shoot and what the camera can deliver - and pay attention to the lenses offered and accessories available as well.
For novices and those on a budget, an entry-level DSLR gives you more than a cheap mirrorless camera. Further up the price range, it's a close call, but you'd have to say that while some might prefer their handling and their viewing system, there are fewer and fewer technical reasons why a DSLR should be considered the best option for photographers.